Memory and the Knowledge of Things Past

By Daniel Pioske
Georgia Southern University
March 2015

By the late 1990s historians were growing wary of the turn toward memory among their ilk. In part, this reticence was predicated on what was perceived to be an overabundance of studies on memory that served to devalue the concept as an object of historical inquiry. But a more pressing problem was that historians who took an interest in memory, it was argued, lacked “critical reflection on method and theory,” resulting in historical investigations that had become “somewhat predictable” and vulnerable to the charge that it was a fad “governed by the fashion of the day” (Confino 1997: 1387; cf. Klein 2000: 127-30; Kansteiner 2002: 179-185).

It is safe to say that both the Hebrew Bible and the ancient history of the southern Levant are now experiencing their own “memory boom” (Winter 2001: 52-66) among historians and archaeologists alike. After a steady increase in the number of works that engaged the theme of memory during the decade that transpired from 2000 – 2010, 2014 witnessed no less than five volumes with memory found in their titles, and a substantial number of literary, historical, and archaeological articles from the year appealed to this topic in various forms. 2015 will find more publications devoted to this subject matter, this writer’s included.

Not surprisingly, I find the concept of memory to be of historical value. In terms of the history of ancient Israel and Judah this significance can be located, at least to a certain degree, in the interpretive possibilities memory permits when assessing the past(s) represented in the Hebrew Bible. For in contrast to the now stale debates of the 1990s and early 2000s between those who held to the historical or fictitious character of biblical storytelling, a connection between the past portrayed in the Hebrew Bible with a form of memory (whether cultural, collective, or social) allows the historian to move beyond these rather rigid distinctions. This is possible because studies of memory have illustrated how a remembered past is always constructed through the prism of present concerns, but in way that does not necessarily sever such memories from a time previous to their recollection.

The lion’s share of recent historical studies within the field have focused on the importance of these present concerns for the formation of biblical memory. By and large, this research has proceeded along two primary lines of investigation. The first method has been to examine how a particular memory—say, of deliverance from Egyptian authority—was remembered across different eras in antiquity, from 8th century Israelite and Judahite prophets, to Babylonian exiles, to those responsible for Persian period texts and redactions. Such research draws near, then, to what J. Assmann has termed “mnemohistory,” or the technique of retracing the ways in which particular memories were transformed over time in response to new historical and cultural contexts (Assmann 1997: 9-17).

A second approach toward biblical memory has been more synchronic in orientation. These investigations have concentrated on how a distinct community rooted in a particular place and time appropriated memories of a shared past in light of their present circumstances. If one were to date significant compositional or redactional activity within the Book of Samuel, for example, to the Yehud of the Persian era, then the historical value of those references to a David within these texts would be not be located in the information they provided about an early Iron Age figure, but rather about what Persian period Yehudites—or at least the scribes and elites from the region—wanted to remember about this legendary ruler in order to imbue their political and social lives with meaning. What such research into memory yields, then, is crucial insights into the concerns or mentalités of a given historical era.

The importance of these studies into memory are without question and mirror the meaningful work of historians in adjacent fields to our own. But what evades scrutiny within these approaches is the vexing question of whether biblical memories about Egyptian bondage or a King David, if we consider them as such, have any connections to actual historical experiences or figures. Such a concern becomes particularly consequential for historians of ancient Israel and Judah who must decide whether certain biblical references, if connected to the discourse of memory, merit historical consideration for a reconstruction of the historical periods to which these texts refer. The question left open within these studies, in other words, is the historical integrity and credibility of that past portrayed within ancient literature informed by the cultural practices of remembering.

What merits more of our attention with regard to historical studies of memory, accordingly, is the question of epistemology. That is, if we are to continue to employ memory within our historical research, then it is incumbent upon us to reflect more deeply on the question of what type of knowledge about the past is generated through a community’s shared recollections. Are memories, for example, restricted in their historical value to what these images tell us about the time in which they are being recalled, or do these memories connect in some way to a more distant, historical past? Can the referential claims embedded in ancient literature informed by memory contribute to a modern critical work of historiography? Are literary memories ever to be considered “historical” sources into the past they represent? How does the historian adjudicate between the spurious and authentic when confronted by such texts?

Engaging these questions will require us to continue to examine the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the material culture of the southern Levant with the same rigor and erudition that is the hallmark of the discipline’s best works. But these questions will also necessitate a more earnest confrontation with the many theoretical discussions that have long focused on these epistemological concerns. We will have to wrestle, in other words, with what Aristotle intends by his insistence that all memory “is of the past” (Aristotle, “Of Memory and Recollection,” 449 b 15). We will need to consider P. Ricoeur’s monumental writings devoted to the “enduring competition” between memory and history’s epistemological claims (Ricoeur 2004: 498- 99).

Some will no doubt argue that this is the work of philosophers and theorists and not the task of historians, archaeologists, and biblical scholars. But if our research on memory is to retain its vitality and open up new vistas into how we understand the history of the southern Levant and the writings of the Hebrew Bible, then more engagement with the difficult questions of epistemology and hermeneutics will be required. The danger of not doing so is that in the years ahead our work will become “somewhat predictable” and open to the charge of having been “governed by the fashion of the day.”

Work cited

Aristotle. 1957. On the Soul: Parva Naturalia. On Breath. Trans. W. Hett. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Assmann, J. 1997. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Confino, A. 1997. “Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method.” American Historical Review 102.5:1386-1403.

Kansteiner, W. 2002. "Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies." History and Theory 41:179-197.

Klein, K. 2000. “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse.” Representations 69: 127-150.

Ricoeur, P. 2004. Memory, History, Forgetting. Trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winter, J. 2001. “The Memory Boom in Contemporary Historical Studies.” Raritan 21.1: 52-66.

Comments (14)

I really appreciate the theoretical and historical nuance of your article. For that reason alone, I assume it will be denounced as a Zionist conspiracy by Lemche and Thompson.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 04/03/2015 - 02:29

My impression has been that Professor Lemche has much more sympathy with the French philosophical tradition than I (formerly teaching philosophy with boring Anglo attitudes) can usually manage.
Memory is the force specifically constituting an individual person, as is explained by Locke's exemplary and never superseded essay on the subject - and while it is not infallible it does have a certain authority, which memorials, commemorations etc., should not be supposed to share. Much current thinking seems to be eliding memory and memorial.
We feel the authority of memory when we say of something that'we cannot forget' it: ie memory lies beyond control of will and is therefore connected with experience, present and past, and therefore (in a limited way) with truth.
Memorials and commemorations by contrast are acts of will, telling us 'Never forget!' They may be benign but they are very much open to collective and political forces whose insistence on versions of the past deserve, just because their motivation lies so firmly in the present and rests on values as well as on facts, a scepticism that memory does not.
Thus there are no collective memories. Memories can be shared only in the sense of being compared. I cannot share your memory as you experience it any more than I can feel your pain, which whatever Bill Clinton thinks I can't.
Memories stretch only a short way into the past. There are no memories now of Queen Victoria, let alone of Moses. What we have in the Bible is not memories of Moses but records which are maybe based on traditions which are maybe based on memories which are maybe based on the real experiences of Moses and contemporaries. The more the records or traditions are based on politically organised commemorations of a later time the more we should question whether they have any basis in real experience.
We should question this but not rule it out. A tradition may tell us about the real situation of those who preserve it but also about the real situation of those it describes. We just have to be careful in weighing which forces seem to us to have been at work.
I'm sure historical questions are very difficult but I don't think that the philosophical questions surrounding them are as difficult or 'vexing' as you think.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 04/03/2015 - 11:57

Mr. Jennings - I believe you comment to be a bit unkind and somewhat misinformed. If you see what Lemche wrote on this site some time ago (, you would see that his thoughts would certainly coalesce with what Mr. Pioske theorizes here. I am not defending Lemche - he can certainly defend himself eloquently.

#3 - Timothy Bagley - 04/03/2015 - 16:15

Robert, if you would also see the contributions to B&I shown below by Lemche, Philip Davies as well as Keith Whitelam’s excellent article “Imagining Jerusalem” in Jerusalem in Ancient History and Tradition, edited by Thomas L. Thompson (A&C Black, 2004): 272-89, you would see that with a little homework and study that these scholars are aware of and support the work of Maurice Halbwach and the concepts of collective memory and also the current scholarship on this aspect of historical study. Lemche Davies

#4 - Timothy Bagley - 04/03/2015 - 22:06

I'm aware that Lemche in particular (and to a lesser extent Thompson) is interested in the sorts of theoretical perspectives that are adopted here by Pioske. The difference is that Pioske here uses these perspectives in order to actually understand the dynamics of memory as it pertains to biblical literature, whereas Lemche and Thompson pay lip service to these theories in order to produce a pseudo-empiricist counter-history--see, for example, here: Note also the tone of both Lemche and Thompson in the discussion, in which those of us who see more historical value in the biblical texts than they do do not are dismissed as "fundamentalists" and "Zionists." I am neither. I don't even believe in God, and as a secular humanist who happens to be of Jewish descent, my attitudes towards the State of Israel are... complicated to say the least.

My point is that Thompson and Lemche have a habit on this site of resorting to personal attacks rather than intellectual engagement, and can't seem to tolerate nuance.

Why Whitelam and Davies were pulled in in response to my comments about Lemche and Thompson are beyond me. Personally I find myself in agreement with much (though not all) of what Davies writes, and even where I would disagree with him, he tends to not personally attack his opponents the way Lemche and Thompson do.

Whitelam is a different piece of work altogether. As far as I am aware, he is a poststructuralist and is thus less concerned with history and memory and more concerned with present-day discursive power. I would imagine anything he's written about memory was done so in that context. But then again, I haven't really read anything he's written since 1996, so maybe he's changed his focus and I should start paying attention to him again.

I think the mistake of both Martin and Timothy has been to assume that in my statements about Lemche and Thompson I am repeating Bill Dever's attacks on them as so-called "minimalists." I am not. I am not attacking Davies at all, frankly, and I really don't pay much attention to Whitelam post-1996 since what he writes about (discursive power in the present day) is beyond the scope of what I currently study (Syro-Palestinian archaeology).

My initial comment on Lemche and Thompson was purely in jest, directed ONLY at them (not at anyone else, and ESPECIALLY not at Davies, whose work highly respect), and in reference to a nasty fight I had with them here:

I might also add that it was written while I was drunk, and thus probably an exercise in poor judgment.

#5 - Robert M. Jennings - 04/06/2015 - 01:15

I wrote a piece saying among other things that I am quite sympathetic to the views in Dr. Pioske's article, although he is underrating the importance of cultural memory among modern historians. Also a lot of literature is missing.

I do not know what happened to that piece. If Mark Elliott replied to my normal email, I would not have seen it as my university address has been down for the last five days.

However, Mr. Jennings' remarks to the discussion is leading nowhere. If people study the exchange he referred to in his mail (from December 2014 here), it should be very clear what is his problem.

I see no reason to go back to the December exchange again, but Mr. Jennings' reply has not moved beyond what he wrote back in December. And as far as cultural memory (or whatever term he prefers) is concerned, there is so much literature to read, evidently not yet read by Mr. Jennings.

Since he calls himself a student of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, it would be nice to know a little more about his affiliations.

#6 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/06/2015 - 11:18

Robert - I am glad you sobered up! When I read your initial comment, I was expecting another episode of 'minimalist' bashing that has occurred on this site too many times. The Thompson article from last December (Also the Narratives of Israel are a Palestinian Heritage) wherein you had some heated discussion with Lemche and Thompson was, in my judgment, a clear demonstration of misreading by many respondents (Enopoletus Harding in particular!). I just wanted to stress in my comments to Mr. Pioske's article that these issues have been discussed many times and that the scholars you cited are fully aware of the debate. I only brought in Davies and Whitelam as further examples from this so-called school of scholars who are engaged with the collective memory/cultural memory debate. I seriously question whether you can substantiate with 'chapter & verse' where Thompson and Lemche "pay lip service" (by the way, not a very scholarly comment!) to these ideas in their published writings. I do not accept the content of that December 2014 discussion as evidence of reasoned argument about memory and historical value. But I have no interest or intention to raise the heat on that discussion again. Instead, and with some facetiousness, I tip my glass to you to encourage you to study their writings with a 'sober' objectivity.

#7 - Timothy Bagley - 04/06/2015 - 13:57

I forgot to mention that if Mr. Jennigs wants to know more about where I am as to memory, he should consult the volume edited by Pernille Carstens, Trine Bjørnung Hasselbalch, and me, Cultural Memory in Biblical Exegesis (Gorgias, 2012).

#8 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/06/2015 - 16:26

Memory is consciousness, belonging to a person existing in the present and relating to events in the past, determined solely, it genuine, by the consciousness that same person had of those events when they occurred. That is why we want witnesses to events to be uninfluenced by the suggestions or expectations of others - not, for instance, to 'tell us what we want to hear' but to tell us what they remember.
Culture, for good or ill, is all about the influence on us of others.
Therefore there is no such thing as cultural memory.
Professor Pioske seems to suggest that if an account of an event at time A is written at time B its historical value will lie in revealing the mentalities of time B, at least if the interval of time is great. But there is no difficulty in principle in supposing that it has historical value of both kinds. The B mentality may be good at understanding A.

#9 - Martin Hughes - 04/07/2015 - 08:26


your definition is too easy. Because you leave out a factor very well in evidence today: That memory--collective, social, cultural, whatever--may be a person's personal memory, but it might also be a weapon of mass instruction: An elitarian group pressing its "memory" down on the majority with little memory, except from the family-bound (maybe a football club). That's the reason why the working tittle for the book which I hope soon to be able to get together is "Cultural memory is not a paper tiger".

The problem with cultural memory is that it was coined by a student of culture, whereas the idea of a social memory was coined by a sociologist. In theory it is not the same but difficult to distinguish in practice. That's one reason for seeing the same pieces printed in readers belonging both to cultural memory and collective memory.

But it would be nice with some terminological clarification. It is what we teach our students: Get your definitions right before you move into your subject for serious.

#10 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/07/2015 - 15:32

I agree completely that what I call 'memorials' rather than 'memory' can be weapons of mass destruction and I guess we both have the same terrifying example in mind. I don't claim ownership of words and you are entitled to call cultural norms 'memories' if you wish. I would only say that those who use 'memory' in this sense should use another word to refer to 'consciousness genuinely informed by the past', ie what I call memory.
My worry about the term cultural memory is that it seems to elide what I call memory and what I call memorial, which are really so different.
I hope your new book will be a fiery dart against the roaring lion (definitely not paper tiger) that has seized on the history of Palestine. You really ought to come and give a lecture in the UK.

#11 - Martin Hughes - 04/07/2015 - 20:42

Dear Martin,

Your memorials is probably close to Nora's lieux des mémoirs, which should be the same as Cicero's loci memoriae but only to a degree. Loci memoriae were elements in the court that helped the speaker to memorize what he was going to say, moving from one point to the next.

Anne Whitehead in her very readable introduction Memory (London: Routledge, 2009) thinks of memory as memory about the present whereas cultural memory is about the distant past.

I do not agree. Cultural memory is, as you say, the elite's constructed memory such as that we find in the OT. But Halbwachs was not writing about the elite except if we think of a discrete group. He was originally speaking about les cadres sociaux and their memory, i.e. social groups which is or was the language used by a sociologist. Any social group will have its own memory of the present but also of the past. Just think of George Best and the memory of him in Manchester.

Another advice to people venturing into this field: Try to get an overview of the terms for memory used in different languages. Halbwachs wrote in French, Assmann in German and so forth. What is mémoire in French is not necessary exactly the same as Erinnerung or Gedächtnis (which is the term used by Assmann) in German and memory in English. Memory could perhaps better be equated with souvenir in French, while your memorial is definitely to be equated with lieux des mémoires.

I would only wish 1) that N. Americans knew a few more languages than English (US of course, not the queen's) and perhaps some Hebrew, and 2) that they began to read the literature in its original languages to escape all this confusion.

#12 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/08/2015 - 06:17

Niels Peter, Are you familiar with the work of Pierre Nora? I am currently working through his Rethinking France (4 vols), the first installment on the State. I would be interested in hearing your views on his theories of 'lieux de mémoire'.

#13 - Timothy Bagley - 04/12/2015 - 17:35


Yes, difficult to not knowing him. One problem in this connection. Lieux des mémoires have to do with things to remember. It's from Latin loci memoriae which is not exactly the same.

#14 - Niels Peter Lemche - 04/13/2015 - 05:37

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